The extreme wide-angle focal length is an area that I had long ignored. When I was first starting out, I just wasn’t interested in it. I was interested in people – and that meant 85mm f/1.4, 105mm, 135mm, and 200mm lenses with both great compression and bokeh. Leave it Tamron to bring me back to the wide side with the world’s first ultra-wide-angle zoom with vibration control: the Tamron SP 15-30mm f/2.8 Di VC USD.
BUILD AND QUALITY
There’s one reason this goes first on the list…because I know what you’re all thinking: Can Tamron really “bring it?” It’s no secret that Tamron is known as a budget brand. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But along with Sigma, Tamron is certainly making a change to get inside pro’s bags. And this lens, honestly, will probably be the greatest force in their lineup to tackle that goal.
This lens is built like a tank – and it’s about the size of one, too. I haven’t held Nikon’s 14-24mm f/2.8 in my hands for quite some time, but that’s immediately what my mind was drawn to. It may even be slightly bigger or slightly heavier – or just under those specs by comparison. But it’s very similar to the 14-24mm – from the slip-on hood over the front of that large, bulging front of the lens to the weight and general, solid feel you get.
One more side note that’s not the most important, but worth a mention: the vibration control is absolutely silent. In a completely quiet environment at night, you can hear the slightest whirring sound. But even then, many who have handled the lens might call me crazy, as they won’t hear a thing. No longer do we have to deal with that somewhat high-pitched vibration reduction noise that I’m used to with the Nikon lenses. Is that because it’s a wide-angle lens? Are Nikon’s most recent VR lenses quieter than my 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II? Perhaps. I wouldn’t know. But this thing is nice and quiet.
So with that, I will no longer discuss the build quality of this lens. There will be no consideration of the fact that Tamron used to be (or still might be with other lenses) a budget brand. This lens is in another league. And as such, it will be judged without prejudice and with every expectation I’d give any other lens. While still a bargain compared to other offerings on the market, it’s still a decent amount to shell out for a lens. There will be no “for it’s price…” excuses. This is it (and for those wondering, it sure did impress the Hell out of me, no excuses required).
For those who are lens shopping, this lens needs two teaspoons of present-day context. For a quick opinion, scroll down to “THE RAVE.”
Shooting with long focal length lenses is great in many ways. They don’t distort very much, they give you just a bit more reach to work from more “comfortable” distances, and they throw ugly backgrounds out of focus, turning gross nighttime building lights into beautifully colorful dew drops of light. But they don’t get you up close and into the action; and your viewers can tell the difference because they’re not “feeling” it as much as they could be, either.
Nikon has its 14-24mm f/2.8 that Nikonians swear by in the same way that Canon has its 16-35mm f/2.8 (if you want image stabilization, you have to down to f/4 lenses with Nikon's 16-35mm f/4 VR and Canon's 16-35mm f/4 IS lenses). But neither has been updated in quite some time, and neither features any kind of vibration control. The latter, on one hand, hasn’t been deemed necessary by the big kids on the block because wide-angle lenses can be shot at relatively slow shutter speeds as it is. But that decision has certainly been much to everyone’s dismay. Who would give up four stops of motion crushing powers in any lens? And there’s no doubt the vibration control is a welcome addition for any video shooter, while no one will have to sacrifice that extra stop of light anymore.
Thankfully, Tamron answered our prayers with such a lens that even beats out Nikon’s 14-24mm by being able to punch in to 30mm without much sacrifice on the wide end. Granted, one can actually discern between 14mm and 15mm as opposed to the same difference between the 24mm and 30mm range, but it’s not a bad tradeoff at all given that 14mm-15mm translates to less than a single step forward in most cases whereas 24-30mm is certainly a few more (obviously that doesn’t quite hold true for landscape photographers, but then they don’t need vibration control anyway).
By that logic, I’ve put myself in a bit of a pickle with respect to the Canon lens. But now we’re considering a two-millimeter focal length difference at the wide end compared to the Nikon as opposed to a 5mm difference on the zoomed end compared to the Tamron – and the Tamron still has vibration control going for it. And we can go all day to Nikon’s 17-35mm until we get to the 24-70mm and beyond – and then we’re in another category altogether. Hopefully we can agree that the exact focal length of these ultra-wide-angle zooms won’t be the deciding factor in any real purchasing decision.
In short, the Tamron SP 15-30mm f/2.8 Di VC USD lens is the most fun I’ve had in a long time. Disclaimer: that might be because of the fun I had shooting the cutest seal that ever reached Newport Beach shores while I had that lens (I considered breaking some laws that I’m sure must be laws to sealnap the little guy, but I later realized it wouldn’t do well on the plane on home). But most likely, it’s more because the ultra-wide-angle focal length is just an incredibly fun range in which to work.
You can do just about anything with the 15-30mm, but there’s just one thing you can never do: never – EVER – take portraits of a woman with this lens. Up close, it just distorts women’s heads too much (I’ve never done it with a guy before, but I think my uncle’s girlfriend, here, is much more likely to kill me, now, than any guy would be given a similar scenario).
That aside, at 15mm, I can get the entire beach and still include a deep, beautiful blue sky. That brings me to what I was first impressed with by this lens: the color rendition. Even on a bright, sunny, California afternoon, this lens kept both extremely saturated color and sharpness the entire time – aimed with the sun at its back or in its face.
The second welcomed surprise of this lens came once I was back at the computer. For shooting at 15mm, this lens really impressed me with rather low distortion. Of course, to be that wide, there’s always distortion (especially up close). But any kind of distortion was incredible linear, drawing lines toward the corners directly out in a straight line as opposed to horribly bending them in the middle around an invisible singularity that resides in the center of most wide-angle lenses. Could I be out of practice with the modern wide-angle lens? Absolutely. But regardless, distortion seemed very well controlled for any real-world uses.
Vibration reduction is always nice to have and was quite impressive. While I didn’t have any assignments during this review period that specifically required low-light shooting, I brought the lens along to a friend of a friend’s blow-dry bar opening in Laguna Beach for some rather lame photos (my fault, not theirs) that still help show the potential that this has at a wedding shoot, perhaps.
For those that don’t like to read captions, here’s a repeat: this shot was at 1/50th of a second. No, that’s not record-breaking. But everything is tack sharp. While people weren’t moving much, don’t look at that, since vibration won’t do anything about that. Look instead at the lines of the building’s rooftop. I didn’t stand there too carefully, either. I was shooting at 1/50th because I was still being lazy, moving back and forth to quickly snap a couple images, simply using the event as an excuse to test the lens. For the record, there was no cherry-picking either – all of the images from this series were this sharp.
While I did notice some issues getting accurate focus, the lens does focus very quickly (as it should for a wide-angle lens), and some inconsistencies in focus accuracy are not unusual for third-party lenses. It may simply need a small adjustment that I’m sure Tamron would take care of. Still, it’s a bummer that it didn’t come out of the box being perfect in that respect, meaning some unlucky few will have to send their lens in right after they get it (again, unfortunately that’s just not that unusual with any of these lenses).
One of my Sigmas was the same way, and the other was absolutely perfect from Day One. I sent the questionable one (my 50mm f/1.4 Art) into Sigma and had it returned in perfect, ready-to-go condition.
Overall image quality was sharp. When it got focus (my copy was fine at closer ranges and only had some minor issues when focusing past 50 feet), everything was just perfect.
I noticed some mild flare with the lens, but only what would be expected with such a large piece of glass as the front element. That said, shooting all day in the sun yielded excellent results with very little adjustment needed in post to fix 100% of the flare issues, if any at all. They really only presented at very specific angles. Flare was always quite mild.
The only other "issue" is the expected difference in exposure between the widest (15mm) and most zoomed (30mm) settings. This is normal for any zoom lens, but I was a bit concerned when looking at the back of the camera. Further inspection in Lightroom revealed the difference is only about half of a stop, which is easily adjusted in post if need be with little penatly in image quality.
A NOTE ON DEPTH OF FIELD
Not everyone will tell you this (and I have yet to read an exact description of this in this way), but I believe I’ve finally discovered for myself how to describe the bokeh (or “aesthetic depth of field”) properties of wide-angle lenses. At f/2.8, most lenses can throw the entire background so far out of focus that you just can’t tell what was there. A wide-angle lens, however, has greater depth of field, as many are aware. No matter how wide you go with this lens, you just can’t throw the background out of focus beyond recognition – the general scene will always be clear. But there’s something else about the feeling and experience of this lens with respect to depth of field.
The lens seems to put anything that is out of focus in the same “level” of focus. An 85mm f/1.4 lens has a nice falloff to the sharp parts of the lens. The transition to “completely out of focus” seems to be smooth and gradual, if still fast. But there are sharp areas, not quite so sharp areas, and extremely out of focus areas with those lenses.
With this, there’s really just one level of bokeh throughout the entire image. From the rocks just two feet behind your subject to rocks 50 feet behind your subject, they’ll all look largely the same. And this has an interesting compressive effect that wide-angles aren’t exactly known for. You actually get far more separation purely because of the added depth of field with telephoto lenses than you do with wide-angles – an concept that lives contradictorily to the fact that longer lenses compress scenes more than wide-angles. This isn’t good or bad. It just is. It’s simply something to keep in mind when you’re trying to go for a certain aesthetic.
I tried my best not to rave about this lens anywhere in this review – to stay true to describing its properties simply as they are. But I wouldn’t do it justice if I didn’t rave about it.
The Tamron 15-30mm took me to new places in my mind and into the world. Could any wide-angle zoom have done that? Sure. But this one was a particular pleasure to work with. The vibration control gave me the confidence I might otherwise lack while the build quality (including the fantastic glass) helped me deliver crisp images in no time with lightning-fast focusing.
It’s lenses like this that make me rethink my prime-lens-only strategy. It’s not really a strategy, per se. It’s more of a preference. But I do think that prime lenses are generally better quality for the money since they are optimized for one focal length. And I don’t mind changing a lens or carrying two bodies if need be to accomplish what I need to. My 70-200mm f/2.8 is my only zoom, and lately I’ve just been shooting with my 85mm and 35mm. I get along just fine.
But when something performs this well all-around, I easily miss being able to creep in just a little on the zoom or snap out from an intimate moment to a party trick happening behind me. And I certainly miss any kind of vibration reduction on most prime lenses. Moreover, there simply aren’t any autofocus ultra-wide-angle primes that I love anywhere near the way I love this lens – not even close (I hate them all, to be honest). So again, I may be a convert when it comes to a wide-angle zoom.